Robin Walker, Worcester’s MP, hosted a special briefing in Parliament yesterday with the British Retail Consortium and major retailers including John Lewis and Asda so that they could brief MPs ahead of the budget on the strong case for business rates reform. He also took the opportunity to nip into the debate in Westminster Hall on High Streets and make a number of interventions to support the case. He has written to the Chancellor George Osborne to welcome the fact that he will be reporting back on reforms to business rates in his budget and to recommend various steps that could help shops and retailers.
The BRC’s own research report entitled ‘Fewer better jobs’ has warned that changes in retail could affect hundreds of thousands of jobs in the years to come and that change is inevitable regardless of Government policy. Whilst they welcome steps such as the National Living Wage and the Apprenticeship Levy they have set out that these will present the industry with some major challenges and that these will only become greater if the chance to reform business rates is missed.
Robin called for the BIS Select Committee’s report into High Streets and the Future of Retail in the last Parliament, he took part in the Inquiry and even held an evidence session in Worcester. He strongly supported the report’s call for a fundamental reform of business rates to help the high street and he has campaigned consistently to ease the burden of rates on small retailers, improve the valuation and appeals system and ensure that the burden shifts from shops on Britain’s High Streets.
As well as arranging for MPs to be briefed on the BRC’s research Robin has highlighted budget submissions from the Association of Convenience Stores, the Federation of Small Businesses and the National Federation of Retail Newsagents all calling for reforms to business rates. He has commended to the Chancellor a proposal from John Lewis to look at applying rates to undeveloped housing land in order to remove some of the burden from city centre shops and he has supported campaigns in Worcester to keep down the cost of parking, a major concern for independent retailers.
Robin intervened three times in the High Streets Debate, called for by his colleague Mark Menzies MP saying:
“I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He will recall that in the last Parliament the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills carried out an inquiry on the future of our high streets and retail, and it recommended fundamental reform of business rates. With the Chancellor due to announce his Budget soon, does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital to reduce that burden on our city centres and high streets?
Mark Menzies MP replied:
“My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The Treasury is always listening, so it will be aware of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee report and will have heard my hon. Friend’s comment. I am sure that the Chancellor will include such a measure in his Budget.”
Later on Robin intervened on a Labour MP who was also speaking about the need for rates reform saying:
“We need to look at the significant increase in internet shopping and the impact that that has on our town centres. Town centres can compete by offering the great shopping experience that I have talked about, but internet companies really do need to pay the same taxes, so that they do not have the different profit advantages that they currently have.”
“On that point, does the hon. Lady agree that the Government could, in their reform of business rates, alter the balance of the burden between category A high-street retail and warehousing? All those internet companies need warehousing and delivery to get their goods to market, but category A high-street retail currently has a premium, which belongs in the 1960s rather than in the 21st century.”
And the Labour Whip, Sue Hayman replied:
“The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and I completely agree.”
Robin has also argued that to have strong High Streets and meet the Government’s housing need we need to do more to help develop living above the shop in city centres and he intervened on his friend the High Street’s Minister to make this point. Marcus Jones has said:
“While there is a lot of good news for high streets, in some places retail spaces that have seen better days remain. The Government cannot and will not rest on their laurels, and I am working hard to develop a range of support to help high streets thrive. I strongly believe that we have reached a crossroads for high streets and town centres. We need to act to make them fit for purpose for today’s consumer.”
“My vision is for high streets to be vibrant and viable places where people live, shop, use services and spend their leisure time during the day and in the evening. The Government aim to promote mixed high streets with a stronger range of retail and leisure and, crucially, more residential opportunities.”
Robin replied to the Minister:
“The Minister is making an excellent and reassuring speech. He mentioned the residential opportunities—the opportunities to live around our high streets. Does he agree that more could be done to support the “living over the shop” agenda, ensuring that we convert more of the empty space above shops into residential accommodation?”
To which the Minister responded:
“I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As usual, he makes a pertinent and important point. It is certainly something that I am looking into currently. The Government are helping people to achieve their dream of home ownership as Government-backed schemes have helped more than 200,000 households to buy their homes since 2010. High streets and town centres are great places where many young people may well want to get on the ladder to buy their own homes, and it is an important use of the brownfield sites that many of us have in our constituencies.”
On the conclusion of the debate Robin said:
“I have consistently pressed the case for helping the High Street and I have been proud to do so again. Worcester’s City Centre is currently doing well with fewer vacancies and some really smart new shops. The Retail environment in the city is stronger than ever and it has been great to see Worcester featuring in nationwide competitions for High Streets and markets but we must not rest on our laurels. It is clear that the pace of change in retail continues and the BRC’s seminal report shows that there are real long term risks to employment in this sector. I want to make sure Government is doing everything it can to make sure that their warning of “fewer, better jobs” is made as few fewer and as much better as possible and I am optimistic that thriving centres such as Worcester’s High Street and the streets around it can continue to thrive.”
“Reforming business rates is essential to make sure this is the case and I was glad to have the opportunity not only to speak out about the case for reform once again but also to help colleagues in Parliament hear directly from retailers. It was great to see the Minister engaging with the important agenda of living above the shop and I am hopeful that along with rates reform we can see more progress on this too in the upcoming budget.”
Notes to Editors:
For the full Commons debate on High Streets see:
For Robin’s specific interventions see:
For the report from the British Retail Consortium see:
For the BIS Select Committee Report to which Robin contributed see: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmbis/168/168.pdf